Plastic Logic's recent showcase of its prototype video-playing colour e-ink screen may have a greater effect than just heralding future generations of thinner, lighter iPads with enormous battery lives
According to Dr Kate Stone, the MD of printed electronics company Novalia (and previously an early employee of Plastic Logic), technologies such as these will allow manufacturing to be brought back into home markets including the UK, Europe and US.
“I reckon in five years we could print the iPad [locally], including the screen,” said Stone.
It is a bold claim, considering where Novalia is now. The company specialises in designing electronic circuits and controls that are printed onto paper and cardboard using conductive ink through conventional litho and flexo presses, which are attached to cheap chips and output devices.
Applications have ranged from a tissue box that has a piano built in (to amuse kids on long journeys) to pill packaging that remembers when you took the last pill, and stores that information to pass back to drug companies for efficacy testing.
It is undoubtedly innovative but both Novalia and Plastic Logic are a long way off from Stone's wish to 'print' iPad-type devices in British factories.
Stone says that what we have now is the ability to 'print' capacitive touch screens, and that Plastic Logic's e-ink screens should be able to be produced using similar manufacturing processes (the prototypes showcased were hand-produced).
To bring this nearer, Stone's research is pushing further into what else can be 'printed'.
“We're beginning on a project where we're taking bare silicon dye and looking at how to embed that directly on a print to create a printed silicon chip,” she said. “The iPad is a device that's built from lots of laminates: capacitive touch screen, display, [and] batteries. Printed batteries are also in development. Factory machines could print and assemble these automatically.”
Stone said that having such devices made by clean-room production lines in the UK (or wherever they're being sold, including Europe and the US) has major benefits not only for the local economy but for the environment too, as devices wouldn't have to be shipped from the Far East. And with oil prices rising, local production could help keep prices down.
“I'm incredibly passionate about things being designed and manufactured in local markets,” she said. “I don't want things to be wholly made in Asia. Some things make sense – chips etc – but I want to see things made by machines.
“That's not to put people out of jobs, but because most of the value in the UK/US is in design – people who can design the graphics, product, marketing, even the machine that makes it – and those are high-value jobs.”
Stone is unsure about who will bring this to market – she doesn't have high hopes for companies like Plastic Logic to do it alone (the company recently announced it was ceasing production on its own e-reader to concentrate on technology development).
“I was the third engineer and tenth employee at Plastic Logic. It was all about printing transistors back then – how you can print a new type of electronics,” she said.
“It was a technology looking for a market. They had absolutely no idea what the commercial potential would be. Your work was measured by how fast a transistor is – by scientific metrics – not what the [commercial application would be].
“I left and started [Novalia]. Since then they've had half a billion in investment – largest of its type in Europe – and,” she said sarcastically, “one day they'll have a product [that's successful].”